Introduction

Yik Yak is a free location-based mobile app that allows users to post short, text-only messages of up to 200 characters. Yik Yak functions much like Twitter, but is geographically bound to those within a 10 mile radius and is completely anonymous: there are no usernames, no logins, and no passwords. Posted messages – or “yaks” – can be viewed by up to 500 people located closest to the poster (or more than 500 people, with an in-app purchase).

Similar to the rating method used with Reddit, people can “upvote” or “downvote” other people’s posts. On Yik Yak, posts with enough downvotes (-5) will disappear from the message board. Users can also use the ‘peep’ function to see what yaks are being posted on college campuses in the U.S. “Yak Backs” (comments on yaks) can also be up or downvoted, and “Yakarma” points can be earned by posting messages that are upvoted a lot or voting on other users’ yaks.

Message content on Yik Yak can contain anything and everything, and Yik Yak takes no responsibility for any content posted using the app. Posts range from simple questions, comments and local information, to sexually explicit messages, posts about seeking or using illegal substances, and negative messages aimed at specific people, leading to pranks, threats of violence, or cyber-bullying.

Recently, there have been a number of emergencies stemming from Yik Yak posts on school campuses. While each posting is anonymous to the general public, a record of the posting is still available to law enforcement through legal protocols, even if the post is deleted. A subpoena, court order, or search warrant is required to disclose user account information to law enforcement. In the event of an immediate and serious threat to people, Yik Yak states that it will cooperate with the local authorities to locate the source of the threat through responding to an “emergency request”.1

Last year, an 18-year-old student at the University of Albany was arrested after writing a Yik Yak post threatening to blow up the school. He was charged with falsely reporting an incident and suspended indefinitely from the university football team. Charges linked to Yik Yak posts were laid against 11 college students at eight different U.S. universities last fall. In January 2015, a gun reference posted on Yik Yak caused a lockdown at the Hillcrest High School in Ottawa.2

Yik Yak Becoming Popular With Students

Originally designed for use by the college community, younger students have started using Yik Yak at a rapid rate. Less than two years old, Yik Yak has become extremely popular, especially in the United States. Just last fall, the company raised $62 million in equity financing from Sequoia Capital. Jim Goetz, the partner responsible for Sequoia’s investment in Yik Yak, has high hopes for Yik Yak, and stated that,

“Yik Yak has tapped our desire to connect authentically with those around us. Its hyper-local forums provide a sense of community and a place to be our genuine selves, and that’s really resonated with millions of people, myself included.”3

Unfortunately, problematic usage in schools has become quite common. Users can downvote or report content, but they cannot block other users. If a user’s yaks continue to be reported, that user will be warned and then suspended, according to Yik Yak, but the company takes no responsibility for any of the content posted via the app.

The minimum age for Yik Yak users is 17 years, and those under 18 must have parental permission to use it. But there are no safeguards within the app to ensure that the minimum age requirements or permissions are met. In fact, there are no logins or passwords, and Yik Yak’s privacy policy states that the developer “will never require any information from you other than your location”.

Investigating Yik Yak Posts

While each posting is anonymous to the general public, a record of the posting is still available to law enforcement through legal protocols, even if the post is deleted. A subpoena, court order, or search warrant is required to disclose user account information to law enforcement. In the event of an immediate and serious threat to people, Yik Yak states that they will cooperate with the local authorities to locate the source of the threat in response to an “emergency request”.4

Bill C-13, Protecting Canadians from Online Crime, which came into force in March 2015, may help counter app-based cyber-bullying through the use of law enforcement. Section 372 of the Criminal Code5 now makes it an offence to repeatedly communicate with a person (or cause repeated communications to be made) with the intent to harass that person via means of telecommunication.6 It is also an offence to  make an indecent communication to a person with the intent to alarm or annoy a person via telecommunications.7 Those who commit such offences may be liable to up to two years imprisonment. In combination with Yik Yak’s policy to cooperate with law enforcement proceedings and emergency requests, these provisions could potentially be used to trace and charge cyberbullies using the app for malicious purposes.

It appears that Yik Yak will only respond and react to emergency requests sent to them by law enforcement officials. Therefore, if a student is being cyber-bullied through Yik Yak posts but law enforcement does not intervene, school administrators may not be able to obtain information directly from Yik Yak in the course of their investigation.

Strategies to Counteract Yik Yak

Facing growing concerns about the app’s negative use by very young users, Yik Yak partnered with a company called Maponics to proactively block the app on middle and high school grounds in the U.S., even where no bullying had been reported. When students cross into their middle or high school campus that has a surrounding geofence, they are unable to use the app until they leave school, crossing back over the geofence.8

Some schools in Canada who have faced problems associated with Yik Yak, such as Chilliwack Secondary School in British Columbia, specifically requested that a geofence be set-up.9 The Yik Yak website includes a Geofence Request Form where, by submitting the coordinates of the school, Yik Yak can block the app from being used at that location.10

Schools, such as Chilliwack Secondary School in British Columbia, are trying to encourage students to engage in responsible behaviour, in addition to blocking the app on school grounds.11 This includes posting positive messages, downvoting offensive comments, and reporting inappropriate comments to Yik Yak or teachers in order to have them investigated.